Smart move is to wait on historic designation for Detroit Hotel

It is the oldest building in St. Petersburg, so understandably, local preservationists want to designate it a historic landmark.

The Detroit Hotel at 215 Central Ave. was built in 1888, four years before the city was incorporated, in conjunction with the nearby Orange Belt Railway station, which was built to encourage settlement here. For the first two years, it served as the city's only hotel.

The Detroit played a significant role in the city's history. Many of the first residents probably stayed there while construction of new homes was being completed, and over the years it was the site of many community meetings and political events.

But what seemed like a slam dunk of a request quickly morphed into an emotional issue for all the players.

What's peculiar is that the application for historic designation was not submitted by the owners of the 24 condominiums and four commercial units in the structure, but instead by St. Petersburg Preservation, a group founded in 1977 to preserve historic sites.

Despite letters from condo owners opposing the proposal, the Community Preservation Commission and the city staff recommended approval of the request after a Nov. 20 hearing, which is how the item landed on the City Council's agenda last week.

St. Petersburg Preservation has a long list of supporters for its efforts. Among them are the Council of Neighborhood Associations, the Downtown Neighborhood Association and a host of community leaders.

"The idea of historic designation has been discussed with Mayor (Rick) Baker for the last two or three years," said Will Michaels, president of St. Petersburg Preservation. "The hotel was the Vinoy of its time."

Michaels and the city staff say the historic designation would mean local tax breaks and federal tax credits for the owners. But some owners fear it might limit what they could do with their units.

The condominium owners, however, took offense at both city staff and St. Petersburg Preservation's efforts, flooding the city and Michaels with e-mails.

"As the President of the Hotel Detroit Condominium Association's Board of Directors, I am writing to express our unanimous posture against the pending decision to designate our residence as an historic landmark," Jon Quigley wrote in an e-mail to the council.

"We, as owners, paid over $300,000 a few years ago just to fix one wall,'' wrote another condo owner, Peter Coles. "The city needs to come up with something that works for the owners of this building, instead the city continues to bumble and fumble along."

Some owners questioned whether the hotel was worthy of such designation.

"The Detroit is merely a shell of its former self with the inside of the building in no way resembling anything historic at all, unless you folks consider the piles of termite (droppings) historic," said George Hickerson in an e-mail to the council.

Another owner's frustration included the hotel's neighbors.

"City noise ordinances are not enforced on our property,'' wrote Adam Nibert. "A tent is attached to our building belonging to a business entity that owns (zero) percent of the building and doesn't pay rent. The Garden uses our condo common area without paying us rent and now Dr. Michaels and the St. Petersburg Preservation Society want to control how we use our property."

At last week's council meeting, council chair Jeff Danner expressed concern for the condo owners and persuaded the council to postpone further discussion until February.

"There's no immediacy at this time. This is the historic building on Central (Avenue), and we should do it the right way," he said. "Owners deserve to be heard on the issue."

The delay will give the city staff more time to meet with the condo owners.

The Queen Anne Victorian structure is a jewel and a landmark in its own right, but the city, St. Petersburg Preservation and condo owners should find a happy medium before such a designation is granted.

Sandra J. Gadsden is editor of Neighborhood Times. She can be reached at (727) 893-8874 or sgadsden@sptimes.com.

Smart move is to wait on historic designation for Detroit Hotel 12/05/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 4, 2009 6:39pm]

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